Too often, bosses side with chefs as front-of-house staff are easier to replace and are lower in the hospitality hierarchy
At law school, lecturers love to remind their students that they will be entering a boys club. In parliament, its the same story: watch five minutes of question time and youll see it. So maybe we shouldnt have been so shocked last year when Caroline Tan brought the boys club of the medical profession to everyones attention. Or this year, when Erin Riley experienced backlash after calling out sexism in sport. Yet another conglomerate of educated, middle-class white men were forming a boys club, to the detriment of women.
Where else are women being repeatedly pushed around and pushed away in their workplace? The answer is close to home for anyone whos bought a coffee or beer, or eaten at a restaurant. Hospitality is one of the worst boys clubs of all.
Raise the topic of chefs with almost any 20-something female whos worked with one and she will shudder, haunted by memories of overly entitled, aggressive men. The predominant category of chefs who thrash around in hot kitchens are sleep deprived and/or hungover, and looking around for someone to take it out on. Enter the casual staff.
Sure, chefs throw their weight around regardless of who theyre working with. The occasional man who finds himself taking orders from, or working with, kitchens might be on the receiving end of swearing and name calling. The difference is that women are more likely to experience a special kind of bullying from chefs: unwanted conduct of a sexual nature, including jokes, comments and the sharing of images.
In Australia, courts recognise sexual harassment as a form of sexual discrimination, because its generally experienced by women on account of their gender.
When I told people I was working on this article, many of them came forward with anecdotes of their own. A fellow student said she had definitely been sexually harassed at her first hospitality job but she didnt realise it was harassment at the time. My friend told me how, on her first shift working the door at a nightclub, the bouncer threw her over his shoulder so that all the other security guards could smack her ass, while queuing patrons watched.
I remained on the right side of the chefs for the first few months after starting one of my waitressing jobs. Sometimes being on the right side meant nervously laughing when the head chef asked me how I was at handling balls, meaty ones because he wanted my help in the kitchen and liked the way you roll them.
Waitresses get stuck between demoralising behaviour and a bad place: forced to choose between accepting chefs pent-up frustrations in the form of either sexual attention or verbal aggression. Although both are versions of the same thing harassment waitresses often choose the former because it makes their jobs easier, and laughing it off enables them to stay employed.
I put up with it for a few months, able to distract myself by chatting with the nicer staff members and eating free cake. Meanwhile I took orders from customers who asked me on dates; I carried dirty plates into the kitchen where dishies called me beautiful; I kept a straight face while taking payment from drinkers who sniggered when told they had to reinsert their card; I sold wine to men who said thanks, sexy. Small things, yes, but irritating, recurring, degrading. Waitresses get hit from both sides customers and chefs all the while needing to maintain a professional and polite demeanour.
Sometimes it gets worse. One waitress I know well told me of a chef who we will call Tomcat, who seemed to dislike her from the get go; he approached her in the kitchen one day and asked if she would do him a favour.
Tomcat and an apprentice chef were holding a pig spit roast. Two dishies and one kitchen hand stood around. Tomcat handed the waitress his phone and asked her to press the red button, then he gave the command: OK. Go!
He and the apprentice began pretending to have sex with the pig, thrusting their hips, erupting in cackles of laughter. Tomcat grinned nastily as he took his phone back, looking deep into her horrified eyes.
She complained to management and Tomcat apologised: I didnt do it to make you uncomfortable. Given his satisfied grin at the time, she found that unlikely but ultimately irrelevant: when it comes to sexual harassment, what counts are the effects, not the intentions.
She asked him why he didnt get one of the guys in the kitchen to make the video. I didnt want to ask the junkie kitchen hands because I thought theyd try to steal my phone, he replied.
A week later the restaurant owner, who well call Fox, approached her. She told Fox that she didnt feel safe around Tomcat.
He just needs a holiday. He said he apologised, consoled Fox. He didnt do it to upset you. The reason he told me was that he didnt trust the junkies in the kitchen with his phone.
Asking her to believe that excuse was insulting enough the first time. She realised shed been slammed outside the doors of a B-grade boys club.
If youre experiencing sexual harassment at work, the Australian Human Rights Commission can arrange (voluntary) mediation between you and your employer. If you feel like youve been made to quit because of harassment, you can hire a private law firm to help you seek compensation for the time you are between jobs.
Or you can cut straight to quitting. This is the option most women take. Its easier to find another job and avoid further humiliation than to attempt to retrain the sense of humour of a gang of guys in a kitchen.
Mention the word chef to anyone who has worked in hospitality and the horror stories will flow. But the boys in the kitchens keep their jobs while the women are made to move on.
Too often, bosses take the sides of chefs, brushing off inappropriate behaviour and allowing it to continue; waitresses are easier to replace and sit lower down the hospo hierarchy. But that hierarchy is gendered and its women who lose out and no matter how overworked chefs are, no matter how rough their personal circumstances might be, this kind of behaviour should never be excused.